Ideas

In Defence of Reading Goals

Feature image for In Defence of Reading Goals

Reading goals (“I read 100 books this year!”) used to be cool. But it’s now cool to dunk on them.

The argument against reading goals is usually something along the lines of “it’s not how much you read that matters, it’s what you read that’s important.” This sentiment was best expressed by tech-yogi-guru-millionaire Naval Ravikant, who said:

"Anything that’s one of the greats, if I read a book and that I know it’s amazing, I’ll buy multiple copies, partially to give away, partially because I have them lying around the house. These days I find myself re-reading as much or more as I do reading. I don’t want to read everything. I just want to read the 100 great books over and over again. It’s really more about identifying what are the great books to you, because different books speak to different people, and then really absorbing those."

And of course this got retweeted and repackaged and cited as verse by tech bros to each other, the way the catechisms might be cited amongst choir boys at church camp.

But I think there’s something to be said for setting ambitious reading goals.

Certain Careers Benefit From Reading Volume

Reading goals work primarily because they boost your reading volume. I’m not going to argue unequivocally that ‘reading is good for you’; I’ve already laid out a common line of reasoning in my one book a week guide, and I think it’s clear to most of us that how you read, and what you use reading for is just as important.

But there's an argument for increasing your reading volume that I think doesn't get as much play today. It goes something like this:

  • Certain career and skill types benefit from analogical reasoning. That is, you perform better when you can map what you're facing to some deep structural pattern that comes from other, real world examples; you don’t have to rely on first principles thinking for everything you encounter. This makes you more effective in uncertain environments, since you can bootstrap against something that has happened in the past.
  • In order to use analogical reasoning well, you need to draw from a large set of patterns in your head. Humans are pattern matching machines. All else being equal, a human with more patterns in their head will beat a human with less patterns.
  • The best method to expand the set of patterns in one’s head is to experience it yourself. The next best method is to read.
  • Therefore, all else being equal, the person who collects more patterns more systematically will beat the person who collects less patterns.

This is clearest in fields like investing and business.

Take, for instance, this anecdote from investor Chuck Akre:

I took an inbox that’s full of things that I tore out of magazines, and I gave it to an intern, and said “Look through there and see if you find anything interesting.” A week later he came back and he said “Well here’s a really interesting company, called Bandag. And why is it interesting, well, it’s had high returns on capital and it’s done well for long periods of time.” And I said “Great! What business is it in?” And he said “The tire business.” And I looked at the returns on capital and said, “Well, it’s clearly not in the tire business.” And he said “What do you mean?” And I said, “Take a look at the returns and then take a look at the returns of all the other tire businesses you find and see how they relate to each other.” And Bandag’s, was three, four times what they were. So I said “Obviously it’s not in the tire business, it’s in another business, and our goal is to figure out what that business is.” So we went out to see them.

A huge part of the pattern-matching ability in finance types (or at least the finance types who deal directly with businesses) is just pattern matching over a specific industry, or over a class of business models.

Akre knew immediately that something was up with Bandag because he was familiar with the ROIC for that particular industry; he could smell it on the returns. Similarly, the reason Warren Buffett can talk to a business owner, ask a couple of questions, and then come up with an offer for said business within a few minutes of listening is because he’s been reading annual reports since age 19, and Buffett has never truly stopped reading books and business stories and trade magazines and financial reports in the decades since. The set of patterns in Buffett’s head must be truly massive at this point; his ability to generate an offer on the spot is simply the result of this massive pattern-matching capability.

Chance, as they say, favours the prepared mind. And reading is a hell of a way to prepare.

What Career Skills Lend Themselves to Better Reading?

One problem with this argument is that certain careers benefit more than others when it comes to reading for patterns. If you’re running a business, or investing directly in businesses, it helps to have a large set of industry patterns in your head. This can be as simple as feeding your brain a massive library of business narratives — something that is easily done, given the sheer volume of business books that are published each year.

But what if you were a lawyer, or a machine learning researcher, or a software engineer climbing the rungs of a tech company ladder? This is more difficult to do. I’ve found it useful to read stories about careers in my industry (tech); but it’s not clear to me how many books there are on the careers of exceptional machine learning researchers or lawyers, for instance. Probably the best you can do is to read narratives about careers in adjacent fields, and to watch out for common patterns between them.

For instance, Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco makes for a nice introduction to the worst excesses of high-level corporate politics. And Samsung Rising remains the best English-language introduction I know to chaebol family-feuds. We may not all be tobacco company execs, and we may never be involved with electronics manufacturing. But the management hijinks, corporate backstabbing and feuds in family-run conglomerates are likely to apply to many of our careers, if we are so lucky (or unlucky!) to experience them.

There’s also something to be said for reading about your industry at large. I’ve argued multiple times on this blog that we should all have a rudimentary understanding of the business models in our industry, since this helps to inform future career moves. One exercise I’ve been toying with is to read as many historical tech business biographies as I can get my hands on, alongside the financial reports for the companies involved. I’ve not gotten very far on this exercise, but what little I’ve done has been an eye-opening experience. I look forward to reading more.

What’s a Good Reading Goal?

A good reading goal is whatever you can afford to do, assuming you cut out some TV from your life.

My personal goal is 52 books a year, which rounds to about a book a week. This is nice when the year is good, but terrible for 2020; I am perpetually nine books behind now thanks to the current pandemic. (For a period of three months, during the worst of the global lockdown, I found myself unable to fix my attention on a page for very long.) But I don’t mind as much. The point of the reading goal is to push myself to get a little reading done each day, and not to be too precious about it. And as 2020 winds down, I’ve found it to be very effective.

One nice thing about a steady-state 52 books a year goal is that I can work out how many books I have left in my life. Assuming I live to 80, I’ll have a good 50 years ahead of me, which sums up to 1,560 books before death. This makes me slightly more selective with the books I choose to read. It also frees me to put down books I don’t particularly enjoy.

There’s also been one added, powerful benefit. I’ve written about The Land And Expand Strategy for Reading in the past — which is the idea that you should use narrative to ease yourself into a topic; you should also read multiple books around a question you want answered.

I’ve used this strategy multiple times over the course of writing this blog:

If we assume that it takes on average three books per question I want answered, I have an upper bound of 520 questions I can answer before I die. I find this remarkably exciting. As it is, I tend to have a handful of questions at the back of my head at any given moment. Right now, some of these questions are:

  • Why are conglomerates the predominant business form in the East? What does this mean for those — like me — who intend to build or grow businesses here?
  • The source of Charlie Munger’s power seems to come from his analogical reasoning. What do we know about good analogical thinking, and what does Munger do differently from the rest of us?
  • A core organisational design problem is that it is difficult to motivate risky value-creating behaviour in a large company. The Kochs seem to have designed their org around this problem, and they have grown their conglomerate from an oil-producing family business to a multi-industry giant with very little external capital. They do this by eschewing budgets as a form of control, by focusing on ROIC, and by promoting based on information generated from bets, as opposed to returns alone. (They do use debt for acquisitions, but very sparingly, so they can take advantage of downturns). For all this, very little is publicly known about the specifics of the company’s processes. What can we learn from Koch’s org design?

I know that some of these questions will take years — maybe decades! — to answer satisfactorily. But I am able to answer these questions because I have a reading program to push me along. 520 questions is quite a lot; I look forward to seeing what these are, over the arc of my life.

If you are a tech-yogi-guru-millionaire like Ravikant, or if you are enjoying your retirement, perhaps you can get away with reading 100 great books slowly, and repeatedly.

But if you’re operating in an environment where pattern-matching is useful, it probably helps to expand the set of patterns you have in your head. And reading goals work well for that, because they push you to read when you might otherwise spend time on YouTube, or Twitter, or on the next autoplayed Netflix show.

I urge you to give it a try. I’ve found my 52-books-a-year-goal to be remarkably useful ever since I started it in 2018, and I’m willing to bet that it might be for you, too. Getting started is easy: set yourself a reading goal of 10 books on Goodreads (or a reading app of your choice). Then, find a question you want to investigate. I think you’ll find it particularly delightful when you figure out the answer for yourself — I remember digging into deliberate practice fairly early into my reading habit, and feeling like I'd uncovered treasure when I realised that not many knew about the limitations of the ideas.

That repeated delight has kept me going ever since. I wish the same for you.

Originally published